Old Habits

Saturday October 27th the anniversary of the closing down of Leavesden Imbecile Asylum, the day Diana and Stephen Ryle made the move from their London flat to their new house, and the day a young woman’s body was found in the shed in the bottom of the garden of 45 East Lane, stabbed to death by garden shears.

“You’re not wearing your coat” Diana mimicked a shiver and turned on the cars heating.

Stephen smiled. He loved her caring personality, he believed she had enough care for every and anyone that needed it. Stephen glanced into her eyes, and felt sorry for his wife for being cursed with an aptitude for kindness he had witnessed nowhere before.

The road was clear of the usual weekend traffic, and the journey was as effortless as he had envisioned when he was lying awake and anxious in bed last night. In the early hours of the morning as Diana slept, he watched her, mesmerised by how vulnerable she looked asleep.

“We should be there in twenty minutes Di” reaching the end of the motorway, Stephen stroked her cheek imagining her in the home he had been waiting for since they met. As soon as he could he used his inheritance to put down a deposit for a house. Stephen spent no longer than half an hour in the estate agents before deciding on a new build in the leavesden estate. A fresh red brick, two bedrooms, with a large garden, and easy access to the Country Park and chapel.

As they pulled up to the entrance of the estate a mid morning fog was falling on the houses, restricting their view of the new slate rooftops. Stephen stopped quickly swerving to avoid the man in the middle of the road. The man who was dressed in brown suede trousers and a dirty grey shirt revealed a tobacco stained smile as he limped to the pavement.

“Great way to introduce yourself to the neighbours Ste, by nearly running them over!” Diana chuckled as Stephen turned the engine back on.

“Knowing our luck the poor old sod probably lives next door” she opened her window to wave the man over and introduce herself, but when she looked out he was gone.

“Here we are Di! 45 East Lane” Stephen pulled up on the drive and leant over to kiss his wife

Getting out of the car and looking at the house, Diana’s face froze. Her pupils dilated, and her skin acquired sheen of frost. She had the face of a frightened little girl, her fear was confirmed with a zipping of her coat right up to her chin and the folding or her slender arms. Stephen went in, and she followed. She stopped on the doorstop and glanced back at the street, scanning her eyes across the view searching for the limping old man. Disappointed, once inside she closed her eyes and inhaled the smell of fresh paint and removed her coat.

The house was empty, and undecorated. White walls, and white carpets. The removal van had been the day before and the living room was full of boxes and furniture. Diana sat on the kitchen worktop and ran her hands over the granite surface in a motion similar to disturbing the surface of a pond with your little finger.

“Hello in there! You okay?” Stephen’s voice was uncomfortably loud and he pressed his face against hers.

“Shall we start unpacking?” she jumped up, and out of her momentary trance.

It was late evening before even half of the boxes had been unpacked. They had unpacked the essentials, the bedding, a lamp, the wine glasses, the toiletries, her books, the case of wine her mother gave them as a small moving in gift, and her rocking chair. As dusk gradually calmed the walls of their luminosity they stood and looked out at the garden.

“You look tired, take a break” Diana whispered as she moved his fringe away from his eyes “I’m fine, where’s the rest of those boxes?” he took a sip of wine

“Stephen the boxes can wait until tomorrow, nothing else matters tonight, the bed is made. Relax” she took the glass from his hand and stole a sip.

They stood there watching the sun fall and the autumn darkness exhale its maroon smoke into the air. She looked up at her husband, back to the mess of boxes and furniture, and back at him again and let herself smile genuinely for the first time that day.

“Ste did you see the local down the road as we drove past? Why don’t you go, check It out, have a pint, relax?” She asked finishing his wine.

“I’ll be okay, I could do with a long bath and when you get back we’ll have a nightcap in the garden” she picked up his wallet from the kitchen counter.

“It’s our first night here Di, and you want to get rid of me. It’s my house” he teased as he retrieved his wallet.

“Maybe I’m planning a private housewarming and want it to be a surprise” she leant in and kissed him.

It takes Stephen seven minutes to walk from his house to The Swan, he walks briskly. He walks, with his hands in his pockets, facing the ground. It’s only 7pm but the street feels emptier than London in the early hours of the morning. When he gets to the pub he considers turning back. It isn’t what he’s used to, it’s dimly lit, what Diana would describe as homely and he misses her. He crosses the road, and walks in.

“I’ll have a Brandy please” he leans over the bar and scans the shelves.

Sipping his drink he searches for a place to sit, he decides on a round table with one chair beside the open fire. He falls into the chair and let’s himself deflate. He feels the flames of the fire comfort his cheeks and palms and offers his hands into the fire.

“Careful, one more drink and we’ll have to rush you to hospital with burns” Stephen stood up startled by a man’s voice, wavering and interruptive.

“I know you, I, I think I owe you an apology” Stephen reached for an extra chair and hurriedly places it beside his own

“It was a joke, put your hands as close to the fire as you like what do I care” the man laughed revealing a couple of eroding teeth

“No, I think I nearly hit you with my car earlier? I was with my wife and I couldn’t see you through the fog. I swerved and you ran off”

The man prolonged his grin and sat down beside Stephen, offering his hand to shake. It was unusual for Stephen to experience such humility and carefree a nature in a person, he found it hard to respond initially and simply shook the man’s hand and smiled in return. All Stephen could see was a grotesque smile and dirty clothes and he felt an unusual guilt surface, realising he was one of those people who judges a person’s intentions by their appearance. He picked up his keys from the table and half stood up, it was an easy time to make his excuses and leave, his drink was finished and the silence between them was becoming awkward.

He stood up and went to the bar to order two brandies.

“You’re definitely new, no one orders Brandy in here, rip off!” the man was laughing so hard he spilt half his drink before even taking a sip. “It’s Roy by the way”.

“I’m Stephen, I just moved in down East Lane” Stephen sunk once again into his chair

“East lane, that’s where I used to work before they laid me off. That expensive new housing estate made sure of that. I used to work as a gardener in the asylum, but three years ago the decided to shut the place down and build houses. East lane was the chapel and recreational grounds. Being a gardener wasn’t as carefree as you would think! My god were they strict, they made a fuss about what we had to wear, how many hours we worked, how short we cut the bloody grass” Roy rolled his eyes.

“The asylum? The estate agent said it was a hospital”

“Ha! Is that what they call it? Flaming ignorance. Forty five years I looked after the gardens there, with the help of Eric mind you. Eric is a better worker, but that’s because of his ways. He’ll do anything you tell him, anything. He came to Leavesden as a patient in 1958, he was accused of murdering his young wife. They thought he did it because of his ways, you see he’s particular, likes routine and doesn’t adjust to change. That’s all he was. Eric was no murderer, I’ve been there long enough to know which of em’ where criminals and which were misunderstood.”

“If he was there for murder surely they locked him up?” Stephen struggled to conceal an amused expression

“Sure he sounds suspicious, but they proved him innocent in the end, like I said. About fifteen years after admission, he was cleared of charges. They said the girl killed herself and made it look like he did it. Then he was allowed to work. Stabbed herself she did, who would be able to do that, sick woman” Roy smiled, and offered Stephen a cigarette.

“Bloody hell, I didn’t realise. I hope you don’t mind, but how could you really be sure he didn’t, you know, kill her?”

“Ha! Ha! Because he’s as daft as anything. Let me tell you, whatever them instincts of ours are, they’re rarely wrong. I knew he was innocent the day he turned up all tears and wails he was” Roy exhaled the smoke from his cigarette.

“You’ll see if you meet him, daft as anything. Harmless.” They finished their drinks.

“Oh stay! Stay for another” Roy leaned closer to Stephen, forcing him to wince at the smell of his sour breath.

“I would stay for one more, but Diana’s waiting at home. But it was great to meet you properly. I need to tell Diana your story, she loves all that stuff. Safe journey home Roy” Stephen picked up his keys

“Let’s hope I don’t get run over” Roy laughed uncontrollably. Weeping with laughter, he was stamping his feet on the floor and saliva was seeping through his charred gums.

Stephen made sure he had his wallet and his keys, took the glasses to the bar, and thanked the young boy polishing the taps.

“Poor old guy, comes in here every night and gets himself plastered. Been that way for years Dad said, he calls him a raving lunatic, but I think he’s just bored” the boy dimmed the lights and rang the bell.

“Roy, last orders mate!” he ushered Stephen closer and whispered “we have to make sure he doesn’t leave Eric home alone for too long”.

Diana poured herself more wine, and took the bubble bath and the bottle of Chardonnay in either hand. Switching off the lamp she let out a sigh of relief that lasted the entirety of her journey up the fifteen stairs to the bathroom. Turning on the taps and removing her heavy jeans, she climbed into the bath. She took a long sip of her wine as she poured the bubble bath under the faucet leaning in to inhale the scent of rose and lavender, the scent of her wedding night.

When the doorbell rang she giggled. A little drunk, she took no precaution getting out of the bath. She nearly slipped as she grabbed a hand towel that only covered her torso.

“Forgotten your keys yet again! Oh old habits will definitely be dying for you darling” Assisted by another giggle. Feeling a draft she paused as she reached the hallway, she wrapped the towel tighter around her shoulders.

Then opened the door.